Rachel worked as a farm manager for three years in PA and as an owner/operator for five years in MN. She currently homesteads in MN.
Chopping Firewood the Old-Fashioned Way
Chopping wood is one of my all-time favorite things to do. Maybe that sounds a little odd, maybe not, but if you want to know how to chop just about any type of wood, no matter the issues, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve chopped a lot of wood and learned a few tricks along the way.
This article will teach you (almost) everything you need to know about chopping firewood by hand, whether you’re dealing with smaller branches or huge rounds cut from the trunks of great trees. Read on to learn how to accomplish such firewood-chopping-feats as “taking its heart,” “going in the back door,” and “speaking to it.” And you thought we were just going to talk about splitting wood.
Note: Splitting and chopping firewood are the same thing, really. I prefer to call it "chopping" because I think of "splitting" wood as a more controlled, intentional process, like splitting a log for fence rails. So in this article, I’ll be using the verb "chop."
What You'll Need to Chop Wood
Eight-Pound Splitting Maul
For chopping wood by hand, anything less than a six-pound splitting maul is, in my opinion, a waste of your time. Small axes are good for small pieces of wood, but a heavier axe will get the job done faster. Forget those three-pound axes they sell at the hardware store—if you’re up against a piece of green ash, twisted elm, or branchy locust, all you’re going to do is get that thing stuck. What you really want is an eight-pound splitting maul. Remember: “Eight is great.” Any more than eight and you’ll run out of steam. Any lighter, and you may not have what you need. This is my all-time favorite splitting maul.
Several Metal Wedges
Have more than one. Sometimes, if you’re dealing with something like a three-foot round of oak, you’ll get one wedge stuck and have to free it by opening the wood with a second wedge. Sometimes you’ll lose track of one of your wedges, drop it in the brush, or leave it in a stump you forgot about, so for best results have at least three.
Chopping Block or Chopping Stump
Usually one of the big rounds from the tree you are working on turning into firewood will work just fine. Nothing fancy, just something stable that will raise the pieces of wood off the ground and save your back a little. Chopping directly into the ground, even into soft dirt, will damage the edge of your axe, hatchet, or splitting maul.
Safety goggles, or at least sunglasses, are a good thing to have when you are doing wedge work. Hitting the metal head of your eight-pounder against the metal wedge with the kind of force you’re going to be generating can cause little metal shards to fly. I know it’s not very manly to wear goggles while you’re chopping wood, but I insist: When beating metal on metal, wear goggles. I had a sliver of metal wedge fly into my face once (luckily not into my eyes) and I tell you, it didn’t feel very good and scared me into wearing sunglasses.
Long Pants and Close-Toed Shoes
Don’t chop firewood in shorts and/or sandals—that would just be silly. Wear long pants and sturdy, close-toed shoes.
Before You Begin
Know what type of wood you are dealing with.
I’m not saying you have to be a forester or an arborist to chop firewood, but it really does help to know which species of tree you’re working with. Is it a hardwood or a soft wood like pine? What do you want it for—indoor or outdoor fires? If you want it for your indoor fireplace or woodstove, it should be a hardwood. If you haven’t chopped a lot of wood in your lifetime yet, you’ll soon learn from experience that different types of trees yield wood that is different when it comes to splitting it and using it for firewood.
Determine what size logs you need.
Fourteen to 18 inches for a woodstove or fireplace is usually good. If you’re chopping for outdoor fires, like campfires or big bonfire parties, the length is really up to you. It’s nice when it’s short enough to manage, though. And the truth is that shorter lengths generally split easier than longer ones.
Cut through knots and branches.
Speaking of cutting your wood, when you do so, do yourself a favor and cut through some of those knots and branches in your log(s). Chopping a knotty piece of wood is easier if the knots have already been damaged by a saw.
Practice to improve your accuracy.
If you’ve never swung an axe or a splitting maul before, then try some practice swings to improve your accuracy. One thing I’ve learned for sure is that being accurate is half the battle.
- To practice aiming, take a piece of wood, set it on your block, and draw a line in it with the sharp edge of your splitting maul.
- Now, line up your swing by touching the blade to the mark, square up your legs, keep your eyes fixed where you want to hit, raise your splitting maul directly over your head (never to one side or the other!) and pull down, bending at the knees and using your legs for power.
- Did you hit the mark? Keep working at it until you get fairly accurate. My advice about chopping firewood will be basically useless to you if you can’t strike at least in the general vicinity of where you're aiming.
Shouldn't I Use an Axe to Split Wood?
I don't use or recommend an axe. I prefer the maul, which is more like a wedge with a long handle. The head of the maul is heavy and designed to do more of the work for you than an axe would, and this is especially important when you've got a lot of wood to chop. They come in different weights, and I recommend using an eight-pounder.
How to Chop Wood
For most small-diameter pieces of wood (like cherry or sassafras, or branches off of various types of large trees), this method will work.
- Select a piece of wood and place it squarely on your chopping block, if you have one, so that it won’t fall over. In most cases, wood splits more easily if you go from the “top.” What I mean by that is that every piece of wood, whether from a branch or a trunk, has a fat end and a thinner end. The “top” is the thinner end; the “backdoor” is the fatter or wider end. The reason wood splits more easily from the top has to do with grain tension. I like to think of chopping firewood as taking apart the tree, and it needs to be done (usually) in the opposite way that the tree grew. Now there are instances where you have to go in the backdoor, but we’ll discuss that later. So, place your piece of wood top side up, fat-end down.
- Take a look at the end grain of the piece of wood in question. The end grain is the inner part of the log that has been exposed by your cut—it’s where you are able to count the growth rings. So, looking at the end grain, you will probably see at least one “check" or crack. You want to take advantage of where the wood has checked, if you can. If there is more than one check, choose the widest and longest. Let’s assume you have a relatively straight piece of, say, black cherry, nine inches in diameter, with a check that goes through the heart (“the heart” is the center of the end grain – the smallest ring – the oldest part of the piece of tree you are working with, and the center of grain tension). You’ll want to aim for that check with your eight-pounder.
- Face the wood, line up your swing by placing the blade of your eight-pounder over the check, keep your back straight, raise your splitting maul directly over your head (not to either side—you will hurt your back and won’t generate nearly as much power!), and pull the splitting maul downwards, thrusting it into the wood, bending at the knees and using your legs to generate power. Swing your maul. If you land your blow square in the check of our imaginary piece of cherry, all other factors unconsidered, the round should fly apart into two pieces of firewood.
There, that was easy, right? Well, if you really are splitting cherry, then it probably was easy. But even cherry can have its challenges, to say nothing of oak, locust, black walnut, maple, elm, or the dreaded sycamore.
How to Chop Big Rounds of Wood
Here's how to manage a big round, maybe a trunk section of an oak or a maple, four feet in diameter. I classify a “big round” of wood as a section of trunk or branch two feet in diameter or greater. There are fewer species of tree that grow to have huge trunk diameters. Just to name a few, there are oak, ash, maple, poplar, black walnut, sycamore, and willow. As far as firewood for heating is concerned, of the types of wood I just listed, I would only toil away to get firewood from a big round of oak, ash, maple, or black walnut (if I was desperate, as black walnut doesn’t throw a lot of heat).
When dealing with a big round, the process is basically the same regardless of the type of wood.
- Set the wood on the block, top-side-up. Make sure the big round is sitting top-up, backdoor to the ground (see above section “How to Chop” for an explanation of this if you missed it). It’s always best to start this way.
- Assess the wood to determine where you'll aim. Look at the end grain and locate the heart—is it centered or off-center? Does the round you’re dealing with have multiple hearts that you will have to contend with? Look at the bark or (outer sapwood if the bark has rotted off or been removed): If there are knots, branches, or twists in the grain, you should be able to see evidence. Start with a side of the round that is free of knots. Knots and branches are problems when it comes to chopping wood, and in general, when dealing with a big round, you should leave the knotty, branchy sections for last. If the wood is severely twisted, cork-screwed, or curly (as sycamore and silver maple so often are), you will need to be aware of this when setting wedges. Most types of wood will have at least a slight twist in the grain unless you are dealing with something veneer-quality. Finally, look to the end grain again and see if there are any checks. Long wide checks are your friends. You may not see any checks at all. That’s okay, you can make some.
- Chop away the outermost layers first. The first thing to try with a big round is to remove as much of the outer layers of wood as possible. This will begin to relieve the grain tension. Every piece of wood that you remove from a big round will, theoretically, make each remaining piece easier to dislodge. Swing your splitting maul so that the blade lands 5 to 6 inches from the edge of the round. Work systematically, moving around the wood, avoiding knots, and removing as much the outer wood as you can. I refer to this method as “stripping.” You may need to beat on the same place more than once in order to remove a piece of firewood. When your splitting maul makes contact, the wood should at least check. Keep swinging at the checks you’ve made until you dislodge a piece of firewood. I have dealt with big four and five-foot ash rounds that I chopped without the use of wedges, using this method. You might find that your big round of wood call be fully chopped this way, too!
- Continue working on any checks you see at the edges. Once you have stripped the round of as much outerwood as you could get, you may find that you can’t seem to dislodge any more firewood in this fashion. At this point, you can begin taking advantage of the checks. Aim your maul where the wood has checked, ignoring checks that obviously lead to knots, and swing away. If you have a check that goes through the heart, and the wood you are chopping isn’t too unfriendly, you could at this point split the round in half. If you’re able to do that, then just continue chopping the halves as you would any other piece of wood and you should be fine. If you’ve halved the round, and you get stuck, then read on for instructions.
What if you get stuck? So what if your wood is so unfriendly that you can only strip off a little bit of the outer wood, or none at all, or you’ve stripped it and the end grain is not checked and you cannot seem to dislodge any wood with your splitting maul? You will need to use metal wedges to speak to it. (Safety precaution: When using metal wedges, wear protective eyewear.)
Chopping a Big Round of Wood
How to Use a Wedge to Split Wood
"Speaking to it" is the process of drawing a line in the endgrain of the wood using a metal wedge, effectively “telling” the wood how you would like it to split. The line that you draw will act like a check, or like a fault line, and if done properly, the force of driving the wedge into the endgrain will resonate through the wood from top to backdoor. Speaking to it can help with two problems: The outer wood just won’t split off, or there are no checks in the endgrain for you to take advantage of.
To speak to wood, follow these steps:
- Decide where you want to "draw the line." Don’t draw a line that will lead directly to a knot. Ideally, you will draw a line that goes straight through the heart unless your round is huge, unfriendly, and you have not been able to split off any of the outer wood (this has happened to me when chopping ancient, huge scarlet oak rounds). If this is the case for you, the issue will be addressed in Step 3.
- Take your splitting maul turned blade up in your primary hand and one of your sharp wedges in your other hand. This is probably an obvious statement, but I should mention that you should never use the blade of your splitting maul for this, as the wedge would damage it badly. You can also use a sledgehammer to drive wedges (I never bother), and if you do make sure it is a good heavy one.
- Draw the line. Draw a line in the endgrain by setting the wedge against the wood and tapping it with your maul, hard enough to drive it into the wood but not so hard that it gets stuck. I usually give it three or four good hits. Repeat this until you have drawn a line (a whole diameter, really) from one edge of the round, through the heart, and to the other edge.
Alternative: If your wood is so nasty that you have not been able to split off any of the outer wood, and your round is huge, then you may want to start speaking to it by drawing a line that does not go through the heart. If you haven’t split any wood from the round yet, you should use the wedges to draw a line that separates about one-fifth of the round from the rest of it, always drawing the line from edge to edge and avoiding drawing a line that starts at or leads to a knot.
- Set the wedge and sink it. Once you have spoken to the wood, you will set your wedge and begin sinking it. Wedge placement can be important. Don’t set the wedge right in the center of the heart because, in most cases, your wedge will likely get stuck and you will get frustrated. Instead, set the wedge between the heart and the sapwood, not exactly halfway but a little closer to the heart.
How to set the wedge: Hold it in your non-primary hand and hammer it with your maul or sledgehammer, being careful not to smash your wrist, fingers, or hand in the process. Four or five good smacks and it should be sunk deep enough in the wood to stay in place.
- Hit the wedge with your maul. Now that your wedge is set, step back. Using the same motion that you use to chop, swing your maul at the wedge and strike it squarely. Important: Your metal wedge should have four sides, two wider and two narrower. The voice of experience says, when using wedges, never position yourself so that you are striking a wedge facing one of the narrow sides. If your wedge pops out due to strong grain tension or a near-miss from your maul, it will almost always go flying in one of the directions that the narrow edges are facing. So if you are facing a narrow edge, you risk having the wedge go flying at you.
Sink your wedge. As you do, the wood should be splitting apart where you told it to. If everything is going well, sink the wedge as far is it will go. Ideally, the round will split all the way down the fault line, your wedge will fall to the ground, and the big round will now be two chunks of wood. Your wedge might be stuck in the stringy grain of one of the pieces; if so, retrieve it. If the round you are working on split completely, you can skip down in this article to the topic “Take its Heart.” If the wood has not split completely, your wedge is sunk to the hilt, and the backdoor of the round is still held together, then try this: Take your splitting maul, move to the side of the split opposite where the wedge is, and chop into the fault line. This should finish it up. If the wood still has not split, you have a couple of options.
- Use another wedge, if necessary. The first thing to try if you have already sunk one wedge and chopped at the wood with your maul, but to no avail, would be to set another wedge in the faultline that you have created. Follow the same steps for setting a wedge that we have already discussed, and sink that wedge. This will hopefully, finally, split the round in two.
If setting a second wedge doesn’t work, don’t despair! I have rarely found wood that I could not chop, even if the work took a while. Keeping reading and I’ll tell you how to go in through the backdoor.
Go in the Backdoor
This is a good trick that I’ve learned when tackling extra tough rounds of wood: "Going in the back door" simply means that you flip the piece of wood over and, instead of chopping into the top as we usually do, you chop from the bottom. If you have a couple of wedges already sunk in a big round, then you should see a check in the endgrain of the bottom when you flip it over. (Be mindful of your back when turning over very large, heavy rounds of wood, as they can weigh hundreds of pounds.) If the wood has not split all the way down yet, then do your best to estimate where the check should be. Your goal here with going in the backdoor will be to finish what you started up top.
In most cases, you will find that your splitting maul is all you need. Swing at the check in the backdoor (or at where it looks like it should be if there isn’t a check). Work from edge to edge, and be as powerful as you can without hurting yourself. Try to be mindful of where those wedges are; if the wood pops apart, you don’t want to smash the blade of your maul into the wedges. You should be able to finish opening up the round this way.
If you’re dealing with a really awful piece of wood, your splitting maul might not be enough. In this case, set wedges in the backdoor of the round, speaking to it first, just like I’ve already described, and finish it up that way. If you only have three wedges, and two are already lodged in the top of the round, try to use your third wedge in the backdoor in such a way that you can free one of your other wedges. I’ve sometimes run out of wedges and actually used pieces of firewood, which I set as far into the fault line as I could, to pry the wood apart so that I could liberate one of my wedges.
Once you’ve used the backdoor method to get the two pieces of wood apart, flip them both over again so that you can continue chopping from the top. There’s a really useful approach called "taking its heart" that I usually employ when I get to this stage in the game.
How to Take Its Heart
"Taking its heart" is a fairly simply process, and is pretty self-explanatory. The goal is to remove the heartwood from the rest of the wood. This obviously only works if you have already at least halved a big round of wood.
There’s good reason for taking its heart. The heartwood is the “hardest” wood, the oldest, and it is the center of grain tension. Removing it will, in most cases, make the remaining chunk of wood much easier to split.
In order to take the heart, you must first expose it. If you’ve followed my instructions and you’ve split a big round in half, through the heart, then you have two options:
- Option 1: You can split one of the halves in half (producing a quarter of the original round) which will further expose the heartwood. To do this, either use your splitting maul to take advantage of a check, use wedges to speak to it, or just beat out a line with your splitting maul until it comes apart. I find in most cases that once I have split a round in half, it is much easier to continue chopping without the use of wedges because the grain tension has been lessened. Every once in a while when dealing with a particularly stubborn or huge chunk of wood, I’ll use my wedges over and over again. Try it all, starting with the most expedient method (your splitting maul), and see which works best – every piece of wood is different.
- Option 2: Instead of halving it, you can chop the inner edges of the half-round, removing “pizza slices” of wood as you go. By chopping the inner edges, I mean that you should begin to chop off sections from the inside of the round, which you have exposed by splitting the original round in half. This tends to work really well with ash, oak, and maple, in my experience.
Whatever you choose to do, or whatever you have to do, you want to end up with a chunk of wood that is shaped more like a slice of pie or pizza than a semi-circle.
Now you can take its heart:
- To take the heart, aim your splitting maul about 6 or 7 inches (or the width of your standard piece of firewood) from the edge of the wood, which should be about the center of the heart.
- Swing your maul, and see what happens. In some cases, the heart will come loose right away. In others, it will take a few more swings.
- You should see progress in the form of a check that grows longer and deeper with each blow, until you dislodge the heartwood. If you’ve been chopping away at the heart for several minutes and you see no progress, you can try moving closer to the edge (which would mean you would now be trying to dislodge a smaller piece). If that still doesn't work, there may be a knot or another problem in there, so flip it over and try going in the backdoor. If nothing seems to be working (you have a twisted, nasty heart there!) you should turn to your wedges. Speak to it, and you should be able to take the heart.
Taking Its Heart
Things to Remember
As you move on to the one of the three or four big chunks of wood that you have split from the big round, remember some of the things we’ve already discussed:
- Take advantage of the checks. I always start my chopping by exploiting weaknesses in the wood.
- No checks? Can’t make one with your splitting maul, either? Then speak to it with a wedge.
- As the heartwood presents itself to you through your disassembling of the round, take the hearts out. This generally makes splitting up the rest of the wood easier.
- As the pieces needing to be split get smaller, use a chopping block.
- Don’t get too frustrated. If you get stuck, move on to something else and come back.
- Remember that there are very few pieces of wood, no matter what species, that cannot be chopped using the right tools and techniques. The questions you should ask yourself are: What do I want this wood for? How valuable is this wood for my purpose? Does the value of the wood match up with the amount of time it will take to chop it into firewood? If you answered yes to the third question, then don’t give up.
I hope that you’ve enjoyed this basic guide to chopping firewood. It should provide you with just about everything you need to get started chopping wood, or to polish up your skills if you have some experience already. And if there’s something that I haven’t covered, feel free to ask—I love helping, and I love a challenge!
Glossary of Wood-Cutting Terms
- Backdoor: The backdoor is the fatter or wider end of the wood you're working with.
- Check: A check is a line or crack that you can use as a starter point for your cut. A check can occur naturally or you might make one with a maul and a wedge.
- Draw the Line: Create a line, crack, or check with a wedge and a maul. Usually, you'll draw a line that leads to the heart, not to a knot.
- End Grain: End grain is the part of the log that has been exposed because you cut the wood. It's where you can see the growth rings.
- Going in the Back Door: This is when you need to flip a piece of wood over to work on it from the other side.
- Heart: The center of the end grain, the smallest ring, the oldest part of the piece of tree you are working with, and the center of grain tension.
- Speak to It: This is the process of drawing a line or creating a fissure in the end grain using a metal wedge, effectively “telling” the wood where you would like it to split. The line that you draw will act like a fault line, and if done properly, will enable the force of the wedge to split it from top to backdoor.
- Top: The top is the thinner end of the piece of wood you're working with.
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This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
Question: Could you be more specific on tool names, is it best to use a chainsaw to cut firewood? What type and brand, and what details of the blade do you recommend, and should you tighten the blade regularly? Grease it? Special grease? Sharpen before each use? Scraping or metal brush to clean off bark? Use oil? Will a padded glove help w vibration or impact? Or use a tight glove to avoid blisters? Despite his forearm braces, my partner has a firewood business and his hands hurt all the time. I know nothing and want to do anything I can to make it easier for home.
Answer: I don't recommend wearing gloves - they trap moisture and contribute to blistering. It's honestly better to build callouses.
For chainsaws I like stihl. You only need a bar as long as half the diameter of the largest trunk you plan to section - remember, bigger saws are heavier and more tiring and dangerous, so don't get more saw than you really need. Only sharpen teeth when they get dull, and only once or twice by hand. Frequently buy new chains if you do a lot of intense cutting.
Bark removal is not necessary.
If you're talking about a firewood business, proficiency in chopping will have to be amazing. That's a lot of wood to split by hand if any real money is to be made competing with everyone else who will be using a log splitter. Best of luck!!
Question: How long should the oak firewood rounds be seasoned before attempting to split them?
Answer: They don't need to be seasoned before splitting and will season much better after being split.
© 2012 Rachel Koski Nielsen
Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from from PA, now homesteading in MN on January 02, 2018:
You could for sure, that's how fencing is split out of logs! Then after you split it lengthwise, you can turn those pieces on the grain and chop them as normal.
Alicia on January 02, 2018:
I have a round about a foot across and two feet long with a crack down one side. I am wondering if I put wedges in there, I can split it that way.
Michael Murchie from Parts Unknown on July 19, 2016:
Great advice! I have a large tree I felled to break up for firewood tomorrow so this is gold!
Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from from PA, now homesteading in MN on June 25, 2016:
Well... cutting wood against the grain is just called cutting. As in, to cut with a saw. I've never heard someone say they were going to cut wood with an axe or a maul. That's called chopping, or splitting, in my book. But to each their own, I suppose.
Also please recognize that language is always in flux and very little is actually still "set in stone".
Now that we've discussed semantics, what did you think of the content of the article? That would have been a much better comment to leave.
thefeckerwest on April 12, 2016:
When wood is broken up to make firewood it is 'split' as opposed to being 'chopped.' There is a misuse of expressions here. Chopping wood is cutting across the grain, such as when a tree is cut down with an axe.
On the other hand 'splitting' firewood is when the axe/maul is used to open up a round by going in parallel to the grain.
I don't mean to be pedantic but there is a big difference between the two expressions and they are not interchangeable.
ForeverNo1 on September 27, 2015:
Awesome! I can't wait to show my husband that we don't need to buy a $1,000 wood splitter. Unfortunately, he will argue until I demonstrate. Thank you for posting this!
DebMartin on June 19, 2015:
Good article. I enjoyed it. Made me want to go sit on the woodpile with my morning coffee. ;-) I too love splitting... err, chopping... firewood. It's a meditative activity. And I too am a fan of the splitting maul. My only suggestion is that yes, getting out of shorts and sandals is a good idea but I'd take it a step further. I wear the same chapped pants I use when cutting the wood and I always put on my steel-toe boots. I also keep a pretty wide stance when swinging. Thanks!
Country Sunshine from Texas on October 20, 2014:
I heat my old farmhouse with wood, so I know all about chopping and splitting. Unlike you, I don't go through all of these steps. I simply cut my wood into 12-14 inch pieces, set 'em up on a stump, and chop away. While I can use a maul, I much prefer the sledge hammer/4-sided wedge method. A couple of good hits, and it breaks into 4 pieces. Nice article!
joule on October 27, 2013:
Still hoping for the advanced class!
Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from from PA, now homesteading in MN on September 04, 2012:
cclitgirl - Thanks for the comment, and for linking - that's great! Nice to hear from another firewood-choppin' female :)
Cynthia Calhoun from Western NC on September 04, 2012:
Great, detailed hub! I'm going to link to this from one of mine that talks about chopping wood. Great tips and technique - way to take on that chunky piece!
Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from from PA, now homesteading in MN on August 21, 2012:
Pavlo - Thanks for the nice comment! Chopping is definitely good for the body and soul. Glad you enjoyed the article.
Pavlo Badovskyi from Kyiv, Ukraine on August 21, 2012:
I also chop wood for a fireplace . It is a hard job, yet it gives much energy so I can understand that you like this. Good advices , especially how to deal with big trunks.
Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from from PA, now homesteading in MN on July 31, 2012:
Dirt Farmer - Thanks, Jill! I do love choppin'.
Jill Spencer from United States on July 31, 2012:
Rachel--Good God, girl! I'm impressed, by your article & that giant pile of split wood! Voted up & awesome.
Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from from PA, now homesteading in MN on July 22, 2012:
Living well - Glad you enjoyed it. And thanks for the votes and tweet :)
Tm - Efficiency is good! I have to chop a lot of wood. I know what you mean about splitting through knots, but there's only one way to go with them generally. Sure, 3 lb axes are fine for some wood, I guess. I use little axes and hatchets to split kindling. I really like my 8-pounder though, and don't use wedges unless I have to. Thanks for reading and commenting!
tmbridgeland from Small Town, Illinois on July 22, 2012:
Pretty good advice on splitting if you want to do it efficiently. For myself, part of my purpose is just to get out of the house and get some exercise, so I don't bother with being efficient. I use my regular old 3.5 lb axe for splitting, and that works great on the easier ones. If the grain is straight, wedges and mauls are overkill, and add to the work.
Generally, if it looks like it will be a tough log to split, twisted grain or a big knot, I start by striking the log without a lot of force, over and over, from both ends, and also the sides. After a few minutes the log is weakened throughout and it basically falls apart.
Big, centrally located knots can be a problem with this 'method'. Then I'll strip away the outer slabs, as you describe. I may be able to get the log small enough to use this way. Sometimes I have to actually break the knot apart. That is a lot of exercise, and may take a few days if I get tired.
Living Well Now from Near Indianapolis on July 22, 2012:
I've learned a few things from this hub. Thanks for making it. It's well-written, informative and has helpful photos. Voted up and tweeted.